The role of the frontal cortex in memory: An investigation of the Von Restorff effect

Anat Elhalal*, Eddy J. Davelaar, Marius Usher

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Evidence from neuropsychology and neuroimaging indicate that the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) plays an important role in human memory. Although frontal patients are able to form new memories, these memories appear qualitatively different from those of controls by lacking distinctiveness. Neuroimaging studies of memory indicate activation in the PFC under deep encoding conditions, and under conditions of semantic elaboration. Based on these results, we hypothesize that the PFC enhances memory by extracting differences and commonalities in the studied material. To test this hypothesis, we carried out an experimental investigation to test the relationship between the PFC-dependent factors and semantic factors associated with common and specific features of words. These experiments were performed using Free-Recall of word lists with healthy adults, exploiting the correlation between PFC function and fluid intelligence. As predicted, a correlation was found between fluid intelligence and the Von-Restorff effect (better memory for semantic isolates, e.g., isolate "cat" within category members of "fruit"). Moreover, memory for the semantic isolate was found to depend on the isolate's serial position. The isolate item tends to be recalled first, in comparison to non-isolates, suggesting that the process interacts with short term memory. These results are captured within a computational model of free recall, which includes a PFC mechanism that is sensitive to both commonality and distinctiveness, sustaining a trade-off between the two.

Original languageEnglish
Article number410
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Issue numberJUNE
StatePublished - 27 Jun 2014


  • Categorization
  • Computational modeling
  • Distinctiveness
  • Free recall
  • Frontal lobe
  • PFC
  • Semantic memory
  • Von restorff


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